The Editor's Choice


The perils of ‘Christmas Cookery’

With the Christmas tree arriving later this week and Secret Santa getting well under way in the Adam Matthew office it seems a fitting time to share a little a snippet of festive fun that I stumbled across recently exploring our London Low Life collection. Whilst Paul Pry’s 1838 text, Oddities of London Life may be considered in many ways archetypal of the satirical social commentaries of the 19th century lower classes that run throughout this collection, William Heath’s highly amusing account of “Christmas Cookery” is a personal highlight that I felt both too amusing and aptly named to not share.

Whilst any “lover of the ludicrous” is sure to find in Pry’s accounts of disreputable London life an “endless stock of harmless amusement”, “Christmas Cookery” tells the comic tale of poor Nelly Johnson, petty criminal and perhaps the worst cook to ever be commissioned with the production of Christmas dinner. Whilst getting the timings right, choosing the right turkey, and peeling all those potatoes continue to bring many a modern cook out in cold sweats, Nelly Johnson’s "Christmas Cookery" not only reminds us that things were not so different in Victorian London, but offers some invaluable advice for all those facing the same fears this year. 

Oddities of London life / by Paul Pry, 1838, © The Lilly Library, Indiana University
Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

Heath’s account begins by setting forth the crime for which “the sturdy Irish Laundress, one Nelly Johnson” is ultimately accused: stealing the sum of “25 shillings” from Mrs Mary Clark. Nothing too out of the ordinary in 1838 London perhaps, but arguably the crime for which Nelly Johnson has no defence whatsoever is her truly awful cooking. With Mrs Clark forced to delegate the duty of preparing Christmas dinner to the defendant on the pretext of being “totally unable” to perform the task herself after having “so liberally partaken of the compliments of the season”, Nelly sets about the “arduous task of mixing the indispensable plum pudding”. And so the fun begins, as Heath so accurately summarises, “the history of the dinner was nothing but a series of disasters”. Whilst Nelly initially appears competent enough when “compounding the savoury ingredients of the pudding” it soon becomes clear that Nelly herself has overindulged “all morning imbibing antiffogmatics with her own friends”[s] thus reducing “her to a situation very little better than that of the complainant”. Somewhat unsurprisingly Nelly finds herself in a spot of bother, first pitching the “prime leg of pickled pork” into the fireplace as opposed to the intended pot, only then deciding with the aid of Mr Clark to pop “it in a pail which usually contained clean water, but which on that day, held a collection of slop”.

Oddities of London life / by Paul Pry, 1838, © The Lilly Library, Indiana University
Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

Now, if like me, pudding is your favourite part of any meal one might think that poor Nelly may have been able to salvage this situation by producing the perfect plum pudding. Alas, this was not to be the case as we are informed that “the pudding met with no better fortune for on dishing it up, the defendant pitched it out of the pudding-cloth on to the floor”. As if this wasn’t bad enough, insult is only added to such injury thereafter in the discovery “that the plums had been overlooked and the suet forgotten” entirely! Amongst all this culinary chaos Nelly Johnson then proceeds to make matters worse for herself by attempting to steal her mistress’s purse whilst she lies apparently “senseless upon the bed”. Having conveniently “sobered instantly” at the moment of theft, Mrs Clark calls the police, and the swift arrest of Nelly follows. Shockingly, Nelly’s appeals to be shown mercy on the grounds that “I’ve had five children in less than three weeks” prove no more successful than her cooking and the account ends with the Magistrate ordering her imprisonment.

So, although Nelly Johnson may not have enjoyed a very merry Christmas behind bars I share her story with you in the hopes of not only raising awareness of the perils that await those who indulge in the “compliments of the season” a little too early, but also spreading a little Christmas cheer this December.

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